The little lizard at the center of a major oil battle in Texas

Fifty years later, I remain a huge fan of the Endangered Species Act. And it’s not like it’s a claim that we value the natural world as much as we do a buck, fast or slow. And it’s not that it provides a brake on precipitous development. And it’s not like it gives science pride of place over business, which doesn’t happen often enough. My affection for ESA is due to all of these things, but most of all, my devotion to it stems from its ability to drive all the right people crazy. I swear, there are conservative politicians who, if you gave them a choice between destroying ESA and impeaching every Democratic president between now and Judgment Day, they should think about it.

Now consider the sage lizard, a candidate for endangered species listing. The sagebrush lizard is a brown creature with blue ventral spots, which are very elegant. It is generally between two and three inches long. It eats insects and is terrified of large animals, such as humans, and will dash into rocks and crevices if it sees one. And there aren’t many left, so, for over a decade, there was a scuffle over having the sage lizard listed as endangered. There’s a reason for that. One of the lizard’s primary habitats is the Permian Basin in West Texas, which is one of the most productive oil and gas fields in the world. From the Washington Post:

Now, the tiny lizard is fueling a major battle between House Republicans and the Biden administration over the scope of the 50-year-old Endangered Species Act. At issue is the dune sagebrush lizard, a 2.5-inch-long reptile that lives in part of the Permian Basin in west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. House Republicans added a policy rider to a 2024 tax spending bill that would prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the lizard as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Some GOP lawmakers say voluntary conservation efforts are enough to save the lizard from extinction, adding that federal protections would devastate the fossil fuel industry.

And it’s further proof that anyone who taught Republicans the word “weapon” should be shot in the Lagoon Nebula immediately.

The proposed protections represent a weapon of a federal agency, particularly against the world’s most prolific energy-producing region, Rep. August Pfluger (R-Tex.) said during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing last week. Was this species listed in an attempt to kill the fossil fuel industry? Pfluger asked Martha Williams, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Absolutely not, replied Williams. She said the agency made the decision to list based on science and the law, adding that it considered the species’ habitat loss irreversible.

Yes, Congressman Pfluger believes the administration is using the sagebrush lizard as a vehicle to destroy the fossil fuel industry, which brought in $100 billion in the first three months of 2023. This is, of course, insane, even though the end of the fossil fuel industry would be widely applauded by people who are becoming charred around the world right now. But it turns out that the long-running battle over the sagebrush lizard is only part of the ongoing conservative assault on ESA.

The dune sagebrush lizard isn’t the only species Republicans have in their sights. The GOP lawmakers also added the following criteria to the House version of the appropriations bill covering the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service: a rider that would prevent Interior from listing Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population as threatened under the Endangered Species Act; a knight who would require the Inside to take out the gray wolf in the Lower 48; a knight who would prohibit Interior from implementing or enforcing a rule that protects the lesser prairie fowl. The House is also expected to vote this week on two resolutions under the Congressional Review Act to roll back federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken and the northern long-eared bat. At the urging of the logging industry, the Senate narrowly voted in May to eliminate protections for the endangered bat.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Western Caucus, also launched a working group on reviewing the Endangered Species Act last week. They say their goal is to modernize the law, not gut it. We don’t want to eliminate ESA, Westerman told reporters last week. We want to make it something that really works for endangered species. And to do that, it doesn’t need to be a political weapon.

All who believe this, please stand upside down. Westerman fears the fantastic political power of the lesser prairie chicken, something against which his numerous contributions from various energy companies cannot provide an adequate defense. Armed Lesser Prairie Chicken takes no prisoners.

Head shot of Charles P. Pierce

Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, the most recent Idiot Americaand has been a working journalist since 1976. He lives near Boston and has three children.

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